Thursday, December 27, 2012

Medanites, Midianites, and Ishmaelites

Please read parts one, two, and three first.

Quickly, in Yosef's sale, Midianites == Medanites == Ishmaelites. Therefore, the brothers sold Yosef to the Midianites.

There is good evidence for this. Within the story, a number of pesukim make it clear this is so. Outside the story, pesukim in Shofetim show that Midianites == Ishmaelites is possible. And while there are "difficulties" in that one needs to equate different words, I do not deem these to be peshat difficulties. And the alternative peshat interpretations have a number of more severe difficulties, which are true difficulties.

It all comes down to how one defines peshat. I can put my definition in the most starkest terms: Do not make a big deal of minor differences.

Ibn Ezra advances this idea when discussing the differences between the first and second luchot. See part onetwothree, and four. He writes (in part three):

אמר אברהם המחבר:
משפט אנשי לה"ק פעם יבארו דבורם באר היטב ופעם יאמרו הצורך במלות קצרות שיוכל השומע להבין טעמם. ודע כי המלות הם כגופות והטעמים הם כנשמות והגוף לנשמה כמו כלי. ע"כ משפט כל החכמים בכל לשון שישמרו הטעמים ואינם חוששים משנוי המלות אחר שהם שוות בטעמן
Avraham {Ibn Ezra} the author says: The rules of the men {speakers} of the holy tongue, sometimes they explain their words extremely clearly and sometimes they say only what is necessary, in shorthand, such that the hearer can understand their meaning. And know that the words {lexical items} are like bodies and the meanings are like souls, and the body is as a vessel to the soul. Therefore, the rule of all the scholars of every language is to guard to meanings and not pay particular heed to changes in the words, since they are identical in their meaning.
He gives a number of examples. Hagme'ina Na is what Eliezer says to Rivkah, when requesting water, and Hashkini Na is what he reports to her family. Moshe talks of the firstborn of the captive dying, or of the firstborn of the maidservant dying. But don't make a big deal about these changes in language.

I understand that this is a shocking notion. Not just because we are conditioned, via midrash, to grant the most significance to minor changes in language. But such attention to detail is what Rashi (seemingly a pashtan who channels a majority of midrash) does. And so do many of the meforshim, following in these footsteps. How are we to understand the slight nuances in language from one pasuk to another, for surely every bit is significant.

And so, when someone asserts, as Ibn Ezra does, that Midianites == Ishmaelites, and even cites a prooftext as an example of this happening, it seems forced. It seems like a difficulty.

But it isn't a difficulty. And it certainly is not a new difficulty. It is the same assertion, and the same approach, applied thousands of times across Tanach. And when one asserts this, this is engaging in peshat analysis, and it is indeed a strength of the explanation, not a weakness, that one is not worrying about minor variations in language.

I'll give my own example, and you tell me what is most like peshat:

 In Bemidbar 1:14, we have:
יד לְגָד, אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן-דְּעוּאֵל.14 Of Gad, Eliasaph the son of Deuel.
while in Bemidbar 2:14 we have:
יד וּמַטֵּה, גָּד; וְנָשִׂיא לִבְנֵי גָד, אֶלְיָסָף בֶּן-רְעוּאֵל.14 and the tribe of Gad; the prince of the children of Gad being Eliasaph the son of Reuel,

Which should we say is more like peshat?

a) Reuel is the same as Deuel. And come up perhaps for a reason for the change.
b) Reuel and Deuel are two different people. It must be that in the interim, from perek 1 to perek 2, Elyasaf son of Deuel retired, and was replaced by someone else.

Which is more like peshat, considering these two selections from different pesukim:
וְשֵׁם שַׂר-צְבָאוֹ אֲבִינֵר, בֶּן-נֵר דּוֹד שָׁאוּל.
אָמַר אֶל-אַבְנֵר שַׂר הַצָּבָא

Is Aviner ben Ner the general the same as Avner ben Ner?

Another. Moshe warns Pharaoh of Makat Bechorot, saying it will occur כַּחֲצֹת הַלַּיְלָה. Is this the same, more or less, as וַיְהִי בַּחֲצִי הַלַּיְלָה in the fulfillment, or does peshat require that Moshe is giving an approximate time so that Pharaoh cannot claim that the prediction has been fulfilled? Which is peshat, and which is derash?

In parshat Vayigash, we are told of Yosef being drawn out of the pit and being sold. Involved are possibly the brothers, Ishmaelites, and Midianites. No Medanites (without a yud) are mentioned. Then we are told of the cover-up, how the brothers will conceal the sale / taking of Yosef from their father.

And then there is a concluding statement of the perek. The purpose of the concluding statement is to situate Yosef in Egypt, at the conclusion of this tale. After all, we are about to have a perek's digression of Yehuda and Tamar. So, we should first situate Yosef in Egypt. At the end of perek 37:
לו  וְהַמְּדָנִים--מָכְרוּ אֹתוֹ, אֶל-מִצְרָיִם:  לְפוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה, שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים.  {פ}36 And the Midianites sold him into Egypt unto Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's, the captain of the guard. {P}

It is the ultimate in kvetches to say that the Medanites, וְהַמְּדָנִים, are a new entity in this story.

  • For one, there is the definite article, the heh hayedia, indicating (as it often does midrashically) some entity we already know. 
  • For another, this is extremely confusing, introducing a new nationality / group as if the reader should know them. The focus is the sale into Egypt, to Potiphar.
  • Finally, if there were some sale to Medanites from Ishmaelites, there was no earlier explicit mention of this exchange. And the purpose of the pasuk, situated where it is in the pasuk, is to place Yosef in Egypt, so that we can resume in one perek.
Further, immediately after the story of Yehuda and Tamar, we resume the Yosef narrative. In perek 39:

א  וְיוֹסֵף, הוּרַד מִצְרָיְמָה; וַיִּקְנֵהוּ פּוֹטִיפַר סְרִיס פַּרְעֹה שַׂר הַטַּבָּחִים, אִישׁ מִצְרִי, מִיַּד הַיִּשְׁמְעֵאלִים, אֲשֶׁר הוֹרִדֻהוּ שָׁמָּה.1 And Joseph was brought down to Egypt; and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh's, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him of the hand of the Ishmaelites, that had brought him down thither.
The function of this pasuk is the reverse and the parallel of the earlier pasuk. We are resuming the narrative. But how did the Medanites become Ishmaelites?!

Isn't it interesting that the very same "resolution" (which is really just straightforward reading) we had earlier in the parasha during the actual sale is the exact same one we can utilize now? That Medanites == Ishmaelites? And indeed, it is not a "resolution". Parallel pesukim describing the same action (sale to Potiphar) use parallel names, and these are names that we know can be equated, based on sefer Shofetim.

The spelling with a yud and without a yud of מִדְיָנִים vs. וְהַמְּדָנִים is just the sort of slight difference that we should not be concerned with, because we are learning peshat. Just as Reuel == Deuel. And if you think otherwise, it is because we have a fundamental disagreement as to the nature of peshat.

It is true that Midyan had a brother named Medan:
פסוק ל"ב: וּבְנֵי קְטוּרָה פִּילֶגֶשׁ אַבְרָהָם, יָלְדָה אֶת-זִמְרָן וְיָקְשָׁן וּמְדָן וּמִדְיָן--וְיִשְׁבָּק וְשׁוּחַ; וּבְנֵי יָקְשָׁן, שְׁבָא וּדְדָן.

Are we told anywhere that Medan had Medanites as descendants, such that Medanites are a separate entity?

Meanwhile, saying that Medanites, Midyanites, and Ishmaelites are different groups creates difficulties which I consider to be true difficulties, on a peshat level. For example, where in the world did the Medanites come from? Why does the pasuk say that the Midyanites brought him down to Egypt when it was the Ishmaelites who did so, while the Midyanites were only the initial sellers? If the brothers did not sell Yosef, why does Yosef explicitly say twice that they did?

1 comment:

Gavriel said...

Reading this series for the first time, I find many of your arguments very convincing. On the other hand I also find many of Hillel's arguments convincing to whit:
(i) Even if we say Yishmaelim and Midyanim and Medanim can be synonymous terms, it still seems unlikely that a single narrative would shift around between the three for no particular reason, given that it makes the narrative more confusing than it would otherwise be. (For this reason I find the Ramban's variation of Ibn Ezra's explanation more convincing.)
(ii) Your peshat requires you to invent two missing section of the Reuven narrative ((1)he goes off, (2) the brothers tell him what happened and he agrees to participate in their plan). I'm unclear on why this is not "neo-midrash".
(iii) The simplest reading of the pasuk is that midyanim pull him out of the pit. Otherwise the first clause seems unnecessary - we already know the yishmaelim/midyaim are coming.

The depressing result of this exchange for me is to remind of why the Doc Hypothesis is so powerful. If you posit that there are two stories: one in which the brothers sold him to the Yishmaelim on Yehuda's advice; one in which Midyanim pulled him out when their back was turned, foiling Reuven's plans - then this solves the problems. Sure it's not a *proof*, but it does provide an explanation that accounts for the data better than the rival peshat theories. This is what I think Rabbi Student's post failed to really deal with: the non-strawman argument for DH is not that it is a perfect theory that is absolutely demonstrable, it is that it explains otherwise confusing data better than any rival and that remaining problems can be better dealt with by refining the theory (ie. "JE") than choosing a new one. Outside of mathematics and some branches of physics, this is how human intellectual endeavour in the modern world works, and, outside the realm of Torah, I don't think any of us have a problem with that.

But, still, if classical peshat exegesis (which I take to have as a fundamental assumption that given narratives are not woven together from multiple conflicting accounts) could solve this and other problems better than DH, I would go to sleep feeling better. Happy Hanukka.


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